Archive for September, 2013

Judaism: The Apologist’s Shameful Shield Against Early Christian Syncretism

Posted in Uncategorized on September 12, 2013 by Derreck Bennett


Among evangelical apologists, the strategy most often employed to divorce Christianity from any association with Hellenism, or the mystery religions, is to appeal to its roots in Judaism. Robert M. Price describes this brilliantly in his review of Jonathan Z. Smith’s Drudgery Divine:

Judaism is used as [a] buffer … one seizes upon any possible Jewish parallel with this or that feature of New Testament thought or myth that Bultmann or Reitzenstein had tagged a Hellenistic borrowing. Such a Jewish precedent is judged ­ipso facto­ preferable to any Hellenistic one … In all of this the reasoning seems to be that even a vague Jewish parallel is automatically to be preferred over even a close Gnostic or Mystery Religion parallel as the source of a New Testament doctrine or mytheme. And the reason for this bias can only be the traditional theological desire to have the New Testament grow out of the Old as by a process of progressive revelation. Let us widen the scope of Jewish origin to include Rabbinism, and the Pseudepigrapha if we must, but God forbid we should have to admit that Christianity had non-Jewish roots as well as Jewish. [1]

Most recently, I have encountered this strategy in terms of “The New Perspective on Paul,” an attempt by scholars to interpret Paul within the context of Second Temple Judaism. This is exemplified in N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, for which Price has this to say:

Part of Wright’s agenda of harmonizing and de-fusing the evidence is to smother individual New Testament texts beneath a mass of theological synthesis derived from the Old Testament … he wants to tie Paul’s theology in with the grand arc of Old Testament theology [and] “redemptive history” … In reality, the only value he sees in Judaism is the safe haven it gives him from taking into account the patent influence on early Christianity of Hellenistic Mystery religions… [2]

Wright correctly interprets Romans 6:3-5 as saying this:

The resurrection of the Messiah leads, through the identification of the believer with him in baptism, to personal ‘resurrection’, both literally in the future and metaphorically in the present. [3]

Well, golly, Wright. That sure sounds like mystery religion soteriology, given the mystical identification of the believer with the divinity, as well as the former’s share in the fate of the latter. But, according to Wright, the origin of this concept is to be found in the aforementioned “redemptive history” of the Old Testament, i.e., “the metaphorical ‘resurrection’ in second-Temple Judaism, whose concrete referent was the return from exile, the connotation of which was release from sin (in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel in particular).” [4]

Let’s set aside the fact that the resurrection mytheme in the Old Testament is itself probably derived from Osirianism, given the “third day” motif in Hosea 6:2, the image of bones rejoining in Ezekiel 37:7, and the fact that Osiris was long known in Palestine. [5] [6] [7] [8]

We are to believe that Paul, or his predecessors, cobbled this together exclusively from Old Testament themes, and the remarkable similarities to mystery religion soteriology, i.e., mystical identification with and participation in the death and resurrection of the divinity, are just a coincidence. In a Hellenistic milieu of widespread syncretistic activity. 



Works Cited:

[1] Robert M. Price, Review: Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianites and the Religions of Late Antiquity, (2007).

[2] Robert M. Price, Review: The Resurrection of the Son of God, (2007).

[3] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 251.

[4] Ibid., 253.

[5] “For we must not ignore the fact that these very expressions had played an important role in the myths of the ‘dying-and-rising god’ which were still very much alive in the wider cultural environment of Israel” (Lloyd Geering, “Resurrection as the Hope for National Revival,” Resurrection: A Symbol of Hope, [1971]).

[6] “Osiris, according to the brilliant conjecture of Lagarde, is perhaps named in Isaiah 10:4. In any case, he is known in Palestine much earlier, according to the excavations there” (Alfred Bertholet, “The Pre-Christian Belief in the Resurrection of the Body,” The American Journal of Theology, 20:1 [1916]: 10).

[7] “For Egyptian influence to have become integral to Israelite religion even from pre-biblical times is only natural given the fact that from 3000 BCE Egypt ruled Canaan” (Robert M. Price, Review: Christ in Egypt, [2007]).

[8] Psalm 78 derives its structure from an early Hymn to Osiris, as revealed by an Eighteenth Dynasty Egyptian stele. Yahweh’s “awakening” in verse 65 and enthronement of David in verse 70 coincide with Osiris’ vindication and similar enthronement of his son, Horus, as king of Egypt (Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Duane Garrett, “Power Over Egypt in the Hymn to Osiris,” NIV Archaeological Study Bible, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005], 877).